PALO ALTO, Calif. -- If you've ever ordered a book over the Internet or checked the balance in your bank account, a flash across your computer screen probably said your transaction was "secure" -- a promise that your financial information would not be broadcast across the Internet.
Standing behind such a promise is Whitfield Diffie, who looks as if he took a wrong turn at Woodstock and emerged in the blue-suit world of Washington.
This math whiz-turned-inventor-turned-lobbyist has become a fixture of Senate subcommittee rooms, American Bar Association meetings, math conventions and even military conferences. If someone is debating computer security, Diffie is there.
But Diffie's digital crusade has long been a thorn in the side of the National Security Agency. The conflict is over a process of mathematically scrambling computer data to keep it secret. It's called encryption.
Diffie believes encryption is an important personal privacy tool and is vital for making the Internet an online shopping mall. But the NSA, and the FBI, say government must control encryption -- mainly to prevent criminals from keeping too many computerized secrets.
Until about 25 years ago, encryption had been the sole domain of the NSA. But in the early days of the computer age, a test of wills erupted between the NSA and math mavericks such as Diffie, who believed that encryption -- like free speech -- belonged to everyone.
Diffie and NSA officials met face to face in a landmark, daylong meeting in Palo Alto in 1976.
So began a complex relationship between the long-haired, self-described "peace-nik" and the super-secret spy agency. It triggered some unlikely soul-searching at the NSA: remain in the shadows, or emerge and cooperate with the Microsofts and Intels developing a digitized society?
Former NSA Director Bobby Inman said the question set off intense internal debate in the mid- to late 1970s. Hard-liners wanted to prosecute folks such as Diffie. Others wanted to cooperate -- particularly with the NSA's primary antagonists, including Diffie.
"His reputation was such that there was a great eagerness to make sure he was part of the dialogue," Inman said.
Now that e-mail, America Online and Internet shopping are part of everyday life, Vice President Al Gore, the 106th Congress and the Supreme Court are seeking answers to the same questions: Who owns encryption, and who can use it?
"I got into this because I thought having an essential technology of privacy that was a government secret was a bad idea. I still think that," Diffie said, sitting one recent morning in his favorite Palo Alto coffee shop, a mile from the site of that 1976 meeting.
"This is what you had routinely in Soviet society, bureaucrats who say, 'You can't do that.' You say, 'Why?' They say, 'I don't have to tell you.' "
Diffie was born in 1944 in Queens, where, he says, he didn't learn to read until he was 10. He once told an interviewer what he did as a child: "The same thing I do as an adult. I mostly remember staring off into space. From time to time I did well in mathematics."
A fifth-grade teacher introduced him to cryptography -- secret codes. Diffie had his father bring home books on the subject from City College of New York, where he was a history professor. "I found that I enjoyed unraveling secrets," Diffie said.
After graduating from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1965, Diffie worked at Stanford University before his obsession with cryptography overtook him. For two years he traveled the country in a Datsun 510, visiting libraries and interviewing cryptographers.
Along the way he met his wife, Mary Fischer, an Egyptologist, and returned to Palo Alto to meet Stanford Professor Martin Hellman, who he'd heard was also interested in "crypto."
Cryptography, in its noncomputerized form, is an age-old art of writing in and deciphering secret codes. With the advent of the computer, complex algorithms -- the basis of encryption -- have been used to scramble and then reassemble data that users want to keep secret.
The NSA, created secretly in 1952 to eavesdrop on U.S. foes, was home to the nation's top cryptographers and most advanced encryption technologies by the mid-1970s.
But in the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate era, some mathematicians began questioning the NSA's monopoly on encryption. Diffie and Hellman made names for themselves by publicly criticizing an NSA-developed encryption program for banks and corporations that they said was purposely made weak so that the NSA could crack the code if it wanted to access private corporate data.
Nervous about a new generation of computer users keeping digitized secrets, the NSA tried to either discourage ground-breaking mathematicians -- or to hire them.
'Clear difference of opinion'
That's how Diffie, Hellman and two other researchers came to meet with two top NSA officials, on Jan. 9, 1976, in a second-floor conference room overlooking a garden.
Cordialities were swapped. Three tape recorders clicked on. An hour later, equations were scratched on a blackboard, voices were raised and speakers interrupted one another.
"I think we have a clear difference of opinion," one of the NSA officials said. "You regard me as an enemy. That's what you're saying: NSA is the enemy."
Hellman remembers that meeting as a turning point. "They felt like we were invading their turf," Hellman said. "We felt like we were protecting the public."
Diffie and Hellman went on to discover an encryption method even stronger than the NSA's, called public-key cryptography, which made them even bolder targets on the NSA's radar screen.
For the next 20 years, Hellman remained in academics while Diffie played a more public role, fighting for the free use of encryption. "I spent a lot of time in cafes," he said.
Nose-to-nose with NSA chief
Diffie rose to the level of Internet icon in 1994, when he appeared on the cover of the New York Times Magazine -- with his trademark long flowing hair and bushy beard -- nose-to-nose with the NSA's uniformed director, Vice Adm. John McConnell.
It turned Diffie into a hero of the freedom fighters of the Internet, and an enemy of the NSA, said Cipher Deavours, a mathematician at Kean University in New Jersey, who was among those who backed down under NSA pressure in the 1970s.
Deavours, the son of a former NSA employee -- hence the name Cipher, which means an encoded message -- calls Diffie a "cryptographic evangelist."
But Diffie's two-decade fight with the NSA has evolved into something more complicated and personal than mere distrust of Big Brother. Though some refer to him as a general in the "great encryption war," he sees himself more as a United Nations negotiator.
"I've been very open about telling them [NSA officials] what I'm doing, and very pushy about asking them what they're doing," he said. "They've been very polite to me."
And, over time, the NSA has come to respect Diffie's nonpartisan opinions, which appear to be motivated by a pure interest in math and encryption, rather than money or politics, said former NSA Deputy Director William Crowell.
"To him, this is a societal issue," Crowell said.
At a cryptography conference in Washington in June, Diffie flitted from seminar to pay phone to his laptop. From the last row of the auditorium, he listened, fidgeting, to Deputy Attorney General Robert Litt defend the government's control over encryption.
"We're not trying to ban encryption. It's good for privacy; it's good for business," Litt said. "But it will have an adverse effect on law enforcement's ability to protect you. We're not only talking about the FBI and the NSA that'll be affected. We're talking about every police department in the country."
Diffie shakes his head at such logic. It scares him, because it's the complete opposite of what he believes will happen: the increasing loss of personal privacy in the high-tech future.
He believes we're moving quickly into a world where meetings, conversations and financial transactions will be handled via machines "and can, therefore, be watched by machines."
"Without strong encryption, you will be spied on systematically by lots of people," he said.
Furthermore, commerce on the Internet "can only prosper when people can deal confidently with people they have never met and have no reason to trust," Diffie wrote in his co-authored book, "Privacy on the Line: The Politics of Wiretapping and Encryption."
2000 campaign issue
Today, debate over government control of Internet encryption continues to rage. Gore has already made the issue a plank on his 2000 presidential platform.
The 106th Congress will likely weigh in with bills seeking stricter laws governing encryption, although such legislation hasn't made it out of committee in the past few years. And the Supreme Court is set to render decisions on at least two lawsuits with huge Internet implications.
Along the way, Diffie will be popping in on hearings, sharing his opinions in a clipped and persistent cadence with anyone he can corner.
John Perry Barlow, a former Grateful Dead lyricist and a Diffie disciple, said Diffie's fight is akin to keeping a peeping Tom from installing your window blinds.
"Just listening to Whit is a lovely experience. He speaks in paragraphs," Barlow said.
"He is a hero. He cares a lot about liberty. And he's not afraid of NSA. I don't think Whit is afraid of anything."
The NSA concurs. "He's not bashful," Crowell said.
Pub Date: 12/31/98